Silent cinema is an unlikely theme in movies this year. But where Martin Scorsese's movie-mad Hugo caters to viewers' knowledge, The Artist is rooted in a second-hand idea of silent cinema. This French import's ideal audience is probably the adventurous, open-minded moviegoer not already well-versed in the silent era or the earlier (and better) films about golden-age Hollywood mythology it frequently invokes.
Set in Hollywoodland (as the iconic sign then read) between 1927 and 1932, this (mostly) silent film from Michel Hazanavicius duplicates the basic formal elements of most silent cinema while telling a backlot story that borrows heavily from Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born.
As the film opens, matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the medium's biggest star, crosses paths with pretty young hopeful Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). And from there we follow George and Peppy — and they follow each other — on opposite trajectories. With the advent of synchronized sound and the demand for new stars it creates, Peppy evolves from chorus girl to extra to supporting player to full-fledged leading lady. Meanwhile, George resists the sound revolution and, when his studio halts all silent production, strikes out on his own, mounting a doomed silent action film in the old style as producer, director, screenwriter, and star, which leaves him destitute and all but forgotten.
As a formal exercise, if The Artist were an actual silent film from the era, one suspects that it, too, would be all but forgotten. It lacks the specific qualities that mark the best films of the era, from ecstatic physical performances to bold editing to elaborate set-ups to audacious camera movement. Instead, The Artist leans heavily on the most cutesy, gimmicky silent signifiers — irises, wipes, intertitles, etc. Here, silent cinema is prized for its perceived quaintness.
More problematic than the film's limited formal reach is the story it tells. The premise is so hackneyed that it's no doubt meant to be archetypal. But the very idea of making it a modern silent film and then making it be about silent films feels like a failure of imagination. A silent movie is like any other kind of movie — it can be about anything. As for The Artist's chosen subject of silent-to-sound transition, Singin' in the Rain is already the definitive take on the subject — done with sound and in color. Hazanavicius doesn't seem to comprehend that you can't fully tell that story without sound; the idea of trying to do so here is a fundamental miscalculation.
The Artist, ultimately, is less about silent movies than about a certain received notion of Hollywood glamor that survived the transition to sound, that really found its full flowering in the few decades after the talkies.
But if The Artist is a muddled concept that doesn't illuminate much about silent filmmaking, it does fare better as an appreciation of silent-film acting. Dujardin and Bejo don't resort to the exaggerated mugging that could have dragged this film down but rather showcase the more delicate heightened expressions that are the true province of silent performance. And Dujardin's compact physicality, graceful strength, and broad, subtly vain smile are somewhat reminiscent of Singin' in the Rain's Gene Kelly.
However mundane the story is, Dujardin's and Bejo's charisma and chemistry results in some nice bits, though the familiar American and British performers circling the French leads — John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell — are distracting, disrupting the potentially alluring sense of The Artist as an outsider's dream interpretation of early Hollywood.
A dance-floor scene from the film-within-a-film, where you see the star and the future starlet bonding wordlessly over multiple, aborted takes is perhaps the heart of the film. If The Artist isn't one of the year's best films, this is at least one of the past year's best sequences. For a film that spends a lot of time celebrating early Hollywood movie magic, here's an instance where it actually creates some of its own.
Opening Friday, January 20th